It’s always interesting to hear what an artist’s intentions are with his or her latest record, if only because they are often so far removed from the final product. Even in my brief time behind the desks at TMT, I’ve encountered a few real headscratchers. The fact that Girl Talk thought All Day was something deeper than a crude party mix still saddens me. Sometimes, while listening to the Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers LPs, I ponder how a sober Eminem could’ve possibly sought them to rekindle his muse and wound up with their diametric opposite, Recovery. And I’m still waiting for someone — the two dudes in MGMT, or any one of their surprisingly legion fans — to convince me how the formulaic psych rock and Yes-isms of Congratulations add up to anything more artful or affecting than The Old Hit, “Kids.”
Perhaps oddest yet is Death Cab For Cutie’s seventh album, which is their stated attempt at doing Another Green World, the ambient architect Brian Eno’s first experiment with what he once called “unengaging music.” But of what can be found on Codes and Keys, nothing recalls the weird synth jazz of “Sky Saw” and “Over Fire Island.” The instrumentals one would expect never appear. Considering it’s the Cabbies we’re dealing with, even the likelier inspiration points — like the bright spring morning pop of “I’ll Come Running” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” or Ratatat blueprint “The Big Ship” — bear no audible echo here. Codes and Keys sounds nothing like Eno’s masterpiece, but does kind of resemble the Coldplay and U2 albums he’s produced recently — which is to say it’s “unengaging” in a very different way.
Some bands should stick to practicing their innate skills and talents, rather than risking their atrophy for some bold new direction. Why does a Top 40 hook machine like Adam Levine need to convince us Maroon 5 is a “serious” rock band? What motivates Rivers Cuomo to place wannabe club staples featuring Lil Wayne and Jermaine Dupri on an album by the same band that made Pinkerton? Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard’s gift for lyric and melody, after all, is no joke; after years of honing his craft and paring his heart sensitive, the sad sack wound up penning — brace yourself — some of the best songs of our time. There are certain contenders on 2003’s Transatlanticism, ones that take little moments, like rolling down the car window at night or noticing a faded bruise on a girlfriend’s neck, and find enough in them to define a life. But for my money, it was on Plans that Gibbard really hit paydirt. Six years later, I can hardly think of a song about love more moving than “I Will Follow You into the Dark”; and I know I can’t when it comes to “What Sarah Said,” a lament born of learning there’s a darkness where no one can be followed. These are verses in which Gibbard rendered his own personal emotions so vivid as to become tactile for the rest of us, and he did it in a classic and understated way that most songwriters can barely touch anymore.
Codes finds Gibbard joining that club himself. 2008’s Narrow Stairs certainly didn’t have anything to match the apex of its two predecessors, but with songs like “Grapevine Fires” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” it still had plenty to evidence a mastery of storytelling and poetic detail. Instead, we now get laughably hollow abstractions (“Noise/ Cars on the freeway/ Attempting a clean break/ There’s nowhere left to go”), dollops of sour Kraut that Death Cab already pulled off with more panache (and personality) on Stairs’ “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and poptimistic swill that sounds like the worst of Modest Mouse’s comparable post-platinum fade. Perhaps the most concise commentary to be made on the album’s facile understanding of atmospherics is the fact that Gibbard’s voice is almost always muddled by a gratuitous sheen of either tape echo or telephone distortion, expecting us to be moved when it transitions from one to the other.
It’s all pretty interchangeably bad; of the entire affair, the tad overwrought Arcade Fire tribute that is the title track is the only one to lay justifiable claim to future setlist real estate. But if any song merits particular disdain, it’s the closing “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” Codes and Keys is littered with PDA for Gibbard’s new celebrity wife Zooey Deschanel, but this especially garish monument to his muse would have been better placed on one of her She & Him album-wafers. Unfortunately, Ben, nobody else “hears a symphony” when they listen to her voice; and if there’s one to be heard here, it’s just too well encrypted.